In space, recycling is not just Environmentally Conscious, but is also thought of as a necessity. With supply chains reaching all the way back to Earth, the more one can recycle on the International Space Station or a future moon base, the better. Newsweek is reporting on a new piece of equipment that the ISS is getting next year called the Refabricator,

How does the Refabricator work?

While plastic is a very versatile and convenient material, it is anything but environmentally benign. Plastic waste will last in landfills forever and tends to clog oceans, choking off sea life.

However, recycling plastic is an arduous, two step process. First the material has to be pulverized into a powder. Then the powdered plastic is turned into new material ready to be made into products.

The Refabricator reduces the process to a single step, taking in the plastic waste and putting out filament that can then be used in a 3D printer such as the Made in Space model currently operating on the international space station. Unlike ordinary plastic recycling, the material doesn’t have to be diluted with new material.

Plastic comes in a number of varieties, ranging from the flimsy material that shopping bags are made of to the sturdier kind that are made of bottles. The Refabricator only takes in a variety of plastic called Ultem, which is particularly strong and heat resistant, perfect for making tools and spare parts in space.

More advanced models of the Refabricator will be able to deal with other varieties, such as HDEP, commonly used in medical products. Of course, that capability will introduce ISS crews to the age old problem of recycling, sorting.

Spinoffs for recycling on Earth

As is common for NASA funded technology, the Refabriactor has a lot of terrestrial applications.

The simple innovation of being able to cut a step out of the recycling process will make it cheaper and more attractive to use. Such a development means less plastic in landfills and in the ocean. The price of recycled material would come down as well, making manufacturing products made from the stuff more economical.

Future recycling in space

Future lunar colonies and deep space expeditions are going to recycle and reuse items as a matter of course, at least until ways are developed to obtain the material locally. Just about every item in use, instead of being discarded, will be recycled and reused. Future versions of the Refabicator will recycle metals and electronics. An economy in which such things are done will look far different that one where old stuff regularly gets tossed out.